Disseminating the Uncanny

Here is the section of my current MFA Thesis on Freud’s exploration of the uncanny, a kind of psychological horror. I am putting it here so that I can share it and see how incomprehensible (or not) the text is. Much of this is purposefully unedited.

The Uncanny

The first thing that Freud says about the uncanny is, “One such [marginalized aesthetic] is the ‘uncanny’. There is no doubt that this belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread” (Freud 1919, 123). Freud’s Das Unheimliche was written to explore a phenomenon described psychologically by Ernst Jentsch in an earlier paper. In this essay, Freud challenged the concepts laid out by Jentsch, stating at times that the ideas put forth in the earlier paper were limited. Freud conducts a linguistic analysis about the German relationship between heimlich (homely) and unheimlich (uncanny), and then he goes on to analyze the concept of the uncanny through the E. T. A. Hoffman short story “The Sand-Man”. He uses that analysis to discover what it is that evokes the uncanny in people.

Both of these inquires led Freud to the same idea of the uncanny. He states, “the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and hand long been familiar” (124). To him, one of the primary goals of Das Unheimliche was to understand “under what conditions the familiar can become uncanny and frightening” (124).

In his linguistic analysis of the German words heimlich and unheimlich, Freud points out the unusual nature of heimlich, being that it means both that which is familiar, and that which is kept hidden. Using the properties of the prefix un- to denote an antonym, Freud’s reading of various dictionaries leads him to state, “Unheimlich is the antonym of heimlich only in the later’s first sense, not in its second” (132). From this, he is saying that unheimlich, the uncanny, is something that is not familiar, but that it is not necessarily something that is not kept hidden. Additionally, he notes that one of the dictionary entries characterizes the uncanny as applying “to everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come out into the open” (132). Following this further leads Freud to conclude, “Heimlich thus becomes increasingly ambivalent, until it finally merges with its antonym unheimlich” (134). In this way, Freud suggests that the uncanny is something that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, that it is something that perhaps is revealed that was not supposed to be revealed.

To supplement this analysis, Freud delves into what it is that makes something uncanny. To start off, he presents the characterization of this given by Jentsch: “doubt as to whether an apparently animate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate” (135). Freud starts from this and decides to explore it through the E. T. A. Hoffman short story “The Sand-Man”, noting that he is skeptical about how Jentsch has described the effect.

Within the story, Freud compares two potential motifs as those which capture the uncanny: the automaton of Olimpia, who the main character mistakes for a real girl, and the mythic Sand-Man, who takes out children’s eyes. Through comparison, Freud notes that both exhibit the uncanny, but that the Sand-Man is the stronger of the two. As the Sand-Man is not an automaton, but more of a myth made real, this directly confronts the idea as presented by Jentsch.

The Sand-Man is a story told to children in order to get them to go to sleep. He is a figure who will come to restless children and throws hot sand in their eyes, such that they leap out of the children’s heads. “The Sand-Man” follows the tale of Nathaniel, who conflates the idea of the mythical figure with someone who visits his father. This is cemented with chance encounters with the man, and with the eventual death of the child’s father. This was directly after the visitor threatened to tear out Nathaniel’s eyes with hot coals, an action eerily similar to how the Sand Man is supposed to operate.

Later in Nathaniel’s life, he encounters another person who he identifies as the Sand-Man: an optician who sells “eyes”. Although these are merely spectacles and spyglasses, Nathaniel later observes the optician taking eyes out of the automaton Olimpia, who, again, he believes is a real girl. As a result of witnessing this, Nathaniel is reminded of his father’s death and attempts to strangle the optician in a rage.

Later on, Nathaniel happens to discover the original visitor he believed to have killed his father. When he does, he goes into a rage again and attempts to kill his fiancé, and the kills himself when that fails.

Freud states that the uncanniness of the Sand-Man is related to the loss of one’s eyes, and not, as Jentsch would have it, the uncertainty of the Sand-Man being animate or not. Towards this, Freud mentions that E. T. A. Hoffman “initially creates a kind of uncertainty by preventing us…from guessing whether he is going to take us into the real world or into some fantastic world of his own choosing” (139). According to Freud’s analysis, we quickly lose this uncertainty and instead rationalize and make connections between characters. He states that “in the course of Hoffman’s tale this uncertainty disappears; it becomes clear that the author wants us to look through the spectacles or the spyglass of the demon optician” (139). He goes on to say that no longer being uncertain about the situation does not diminish the feeling of the uncanny. This will become more important when discussing the fantastic.

Freud, being Freud, connects the fear of losing one’s eyes to the fear of castration, recalling that, as a criminal, Oedipus famously blinds himself, a “mitigated form of the penalty of castration” (139). He supports this connection by observing that the Sand-Man in Hoffman’s story is connected both with the death of Nathaniel’s father and with the disruption of love, getting between Nathaniel and his fiancé.

Departing from the E. T. A. Hoffman story, Freud moves on to a more phenomenological account of the uncanny, pointing out that sometimes, to him, repetition evokes a feeling of the uncanny. He describes a situation whereupon he visited upon a strange portion of a foreign city. In his attempts to escape this part of the city, he found himself back in the same place. This happened to him a number of times, each taking different routes to leave. Upon his last return, he describes this unintended repetition as a sensation of the uncanny.

As another example, Freud provides the experience of encountering the number 62 multiple times in a single day, in completely disconnected situations. He ties this and the previous example, as well as the concept of the doppelgänger (a double of a person), to a compulsion to repeat. To this, he suggests that the compulsion to repeat is an instinctual desire that can “override the pleasure principle and lend a demonic character to certain aspects of mental life” (145). With this he is meaning that this kind of unintended repetition transforms feelings of fun or delight into that of dread and fear. To close the subject, Freud states that “anything that can remind us of this inner compulsion to repeat is perceived as uncanny” (145), but admits that these kinds of accounts are difficult to judge.

Freud closes his look at situations that evokes the uncanny by connecting fear to repression. He makes the assertion that as psychoanalytic theory believes that repressed feelings arising from emotional impulses are converted into fears, some fears are driven by the element of something that had been repressed suddenly returns. Due to this, “[t]his species of the frightening would then constitute the uncanny” (147). This leads Freud back to the original exploration of language, suggesting that this idea supports the dichotomy of the familiar and the uncanny. He writes, “[F]or this uncanny element is nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed” (146). Later, when tying his examples together, Freud adds, “The negative prefix un- is the indicator of repression” (referring to the German un-heimlich, uncanny; 151).

In the final section of his essay, Freud offers potential counters to his own arguments, stating that the settled definition of the uncanny, “something familiar…that has become repressed and then reappears” (152) is insufficient due to the fact that “[n]ot everything that reminds us of repressed desires…is for that reason uncanny” (152). In other words, while this definition is helpful, the converse is not true.

To resolve this, Freud suggests that we consider two different kinds of uncanny: “the uncanny one knows from experience and the uncanny one only fancies or reads about” (154). For the first of these, the uncanny of real experience, Freud says that the provided definition works. In a lived experience, something is uncanny if it resurfaces something that was familiar and repressed. For the uncanny from fiction, Freud states that our imaginations allow for many situations to become more mundane than if they happened to us in a lived experience. For this brand of the uncanny, he says that “a sense of the uncanny can arise only if there is a conflict of judgment as to whether what has been surmounted and merits no further credence may not, after all, be possible in real life” (156). This will become more important when we discuss the fantastic.

This discussion of two separate kinds of uncanny, one that operates in lived experience, and one that operates in fiction, becomes complicated when designing a narrative experience in something like a game. As a designer, we create a situation for a player to experience, to live, in a fictional space. Due to this juxtaposition, we are able to tap into even more instances of the uncanny than either of these two kinds of the uncanny. Lived experiences are typically limited by the laws of the natural world, but this is no longer the case in a game. Additionally, in a game, we provide a situated presence into the space, which allows us to access portions of the uncanny that are difficult when someone is removed from the experience, as in the case of literature. As such, there is now a third kind of uncanny, a kind of designed experience uncanny, which wasn’t readily apparent in 1919. The more embedded into an experience we get, the easier it is for us to feel the effects of the uncanny.

How can one design for repressed familiarity? If we are to design something that lives in the discussion above, it seems like the only way to provide the uncanny is to know something about the player. Short of an extremely sophisticated analysis of the player and a generation of many gameplay elements, this seems an insurmountable task. I can see two approaches: appealing to universal repression, and designing repression.

Freud makes reference a number of times to behaviors that society has surmounted in majority. This includes concepts such as the experience of the supernatural, or something above or outside the understood natural order of things: the practice of magic, “unnatural” behavior (according to whatever society an individual ascribes to), impossible events, etc. As a society, we have collectively repressed these concepts (to a varying degree), and so the return of any of these can evoke a feeling of the uncanny. This can be difficult, though, as we are dealing with a fictive experience. If the player is highly aware of this, or the narrative of the space allows and expects for any of these situations, then the uncanny is lessened or lost. Further, we run up against the problem of personal acceptance. For some people certain taboo activities may instead be pleasurable and usual. If this is the case, then it can be difficult to lead those players into the uncanny, even though many others will be strongly affected.

To tackle this difficulty, the designer needs to design an experience carefully such that the player is drawn more fully into the fictive space. By creating a narrative experience that precludes the existence of some of these situation, and in fact pushes them outside of the realm of possibility, the player can become more embedded into the rules of the space we provide them. As a result, we repress these ideas for the player. We provide a society where those ideas do not exist, so that when they appear, they feel sudden, out of place, and uncanny. The more we are able to draw players into this false sense of complacency, the stronger the feeling of uncanny will be.

Feel free to comment or contact me directly about what you think about this dissemination of the uncanny (and how to design for it).


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